The Fox News star’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, has already invoked the First Amendment. But there is, in fact, no constitutional protection for journalists who are called to testify in court or, in this case, before a congressional committee. The problem, as the Supreme Court explained in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, is that granting such a privilege requires defining who’s a journalist and who isn’t. And the First Amendment belongs to everyone.
That said, the government is generally loath to force journalists to testify because of the chilling effect it would have on the ability of news organizations to operate as independent monitors of power. It would be well within bounds for the committee to decide that Hannity is not a journalist. He was a close confidant of Donald Trump when Trump was president, was a featured speaker at a Trump rally and, in his communications with the White House, made it clear that he was a member of Team Trump.
But this brings us back to one of the central dilemmas of the Trump years. Hannity’s behavior was so over the top that it’s easy to say he’s not a journalist. Still, you can be sure that Trump’s defenders will point to far more ambiguous situations and say, “What about?” Ben Bradlee’s friendship with President John F. Kennedy comes to mind, as does Walter Lippmann, the ultimate insider.
The problem facing members of the select committee is that if they subpoena Hannity and other Fox News personalities, they would do so in the certain knowledge that Republicans will claim a precedent has been set and abuse it as soon as they’re in a position to do so. I have little doubt, for instance, that New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron would be forced to testify about their papers’ coverage of the Russia scandal.
Which is why the select committee is hoping that Hannity will accept its invitation to testify voluntarily. If he refuses (as he almost certainly will), then it will have to decide whether to issue a subpoena — a move that could have far-reaching consequences.
I’ve heard three questions come up since CNN suspended, then fired, Chris Cuomo for his inappropriate involvement in his brother Andrew’s defense against charges that he’d sexually harassed and assaulted women. I don’t know the answers to any of them. But they’re worth framing as we think about the extraordinary events of the past week.
1. Why did it take so long for CNN to act? The original bad actor in all of this was CNN head Jeff Zucker, who allowed Chris to host Andrew on his show when Andrew, as governor of New York, was winning widespread praise for how he had handled the early stages of the COVID pandemic.
It may have struck many people at the time as a harmless diversion during a very dark period. You may recall that Chris himself contracted the virus. But it was unethical, and in the months to come we learned just how unethical. Remember, Andrew ended up being accused not just of groping women but of grossly mismanaging the pandemic as well.
Then the drip, drip, drip started, as we learned that Chris had advised his brother and taken part in meetings as the sexual-misconduct scandal became increasingly serious. Zucker may have worried that suspending or firing one of his stars would have only called attention to his own role, so he let it go.
The revelations that were reported last week, though, weren’t just more but were also different. They showed that Chris had abused his position by, for instance, trying to find out what stories other journalists were working on. This went way beyond anything Zucker could have reasonably foreseen, and thus may have given him the freedom he needed to do what he should have done earlier.
No doubt Zucker’s hand was strengthened further when Chris Cuomo was hit during the past few days with a sexual misconduct allegation of his own — his second.
2. What about Sean Hannity? I’ve heard a number of people ask why Chris Cuomo has to go when Fox News did nothing about Hannity’s close relationship with Donald Trump. To which I can only respond that Fox, notwithstanding good work by a few of its journalists, is not really a news operation. It’s a propaganda outlet whose stock in trade is lies and ginned-up culture-war stories about issues such as race and the evils of vaccinations.
CNN is not what it used to be, and I’m not a fan of its prime-time line-up of opinionated talk shows. But it’s good to see that management still cares enough about the network’s reputation that it’s not going to stand for a host who breaks all journalistic boundaries — even if he didn’t do much journalism on the air. To imagine that Fox News would take similar action is to believe that Fox and CNN are in the same business. They’re not.
And wouldn’t it be great if CNN ultimately decides to replace Cuomo’s 9 p.m. talk show with an actual newscast? I’m not holding my breath.
3. What about Jeffrey Toobin? You may recall that CNN suspended Toobin as its legal analyst after he was caught pleasuring himself during a Zoom meeting. Many observers were surprised when the network took him back eight months later.
I’m not sure what that was about except to note that the incident took place during a New Yorker staff meeting, where Toobin was a writer. The New Yorker fired Toobin and shows no signs of being willing to take him back. CNN may have figured that it would be unfair to banish Toobin permanently for something he did for another employer. Still, it’s hard to watch Toobin without going “ewww.” And I say that as someone who liked his work both at The New Yorker and on CNN.
Finally: What an extraordinary downfall for the House of Cuomo. I revered their father, Mario; long before 2020, though, I was aware of Andrew’s thuggish reputation as governor. Chris struck me as an amiable lightweight. Scandals like this have a human dimension that can’t be overlooked. Andrew and Chris got what they deserved — but I feel bad for their mother, Matilda, who, at 90, is still very much with us.
What’s interesting about Preston Padden’s unburdening of himself with regard to Rupert Murdoch and Fox News isn’t in what he says. It’s that he said anything at all.
Padden, a former high-ranking executive in the Murdoch empire, wrote a commentary for The Daily Beast earlier this week in which he lamented the Fox News Channel’s devolution from “a responsible and truthful center-right news network” into what it is today: a propaganda arm of Trump Republicans who promote the Big Lie about the 2020 election, peddle deadly falsehoods about COVID-19, and stir up racial animosity by fear-mongering about Black Lives Matter and Antifa. (He should have mentioned climate change while he was at it.) Padden writes:
Over the past nine months I have tried, with increasing bluntness, to get Rupert to understand the real damage that Fox News is doing to America. I failed, and it was arrogant and naïve to ever have thought that I could succeed.
No kidding. Now, it’s true that Fox News wasn’t quite the toxic cesspool that it has become in the age of Trump. Prime-time talk-show hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Greta Van Susteren were reasonable and dealt for the most part with facts. Sean Hannity was paired with a liberal, the late Alan Colmes.
If you squinted, you could make a case that Fox was a right-wing version of what the liberal network MSNBC is today. But I don’t know that it was ever “a responsible and truthful center-right news network”; more like a hard-right outlet whose most outlandish outbursts were at least grounded in some semblance of truth.
Now, though, it’s nothing but lies, racism and conspiracy theories, especially during prime time, led by onetime rational thinker-turned-white supremacist Tucker Carlson. Padden attribute this to Murdoch’s “deep-seated vein of anti-establishment/contrarian thinking,” but he’s giving Rupe way too much credit. It’s money and ratings, and nothing more. That’s all it’s ever been.
Tucker Carlson knows what’s good for you. Have you heard that the coronavirus disperses more readily when you’re outdoors? It’s right here in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And did you know the Chinese have discovered that most people contracted COVID-19 when they were inside? So why does the liberal media and political elite want you to stay cooped up in your home?
“Being outside is far safer. It’s also good for you,” the Fox News host told his viewers. “The question is why are our leaders hurting us on purpose. And the answer is: Because they can.” He added: “You may be suffering intensely, but they’re enjoying it.” In case you didn’t quite get the message, a graphic off to the side read: “Shut Up & Obey.”
For three hours on Monday, from 8 to 11 p.m., I sat and watched as Fox News’ three prime-time hosts — Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — spewed distorted facts and vitriol at their viewers like some dubious-looking guy without a mask who sneezes in your direction at the supermarket.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but I suppose it could have been worse. Like their lodestar, President Donald Trump, Fox is no longer calling COVID-19 a Democratic “hoax.” The threat of a lawsuit may have something to do with that. But now that it appears the pandemic’s toll may not be quite as horrifying as some had predicted (mainly because people are taking social-distancing seriously), Fox’s Big Three are serving up a toxic brew of disdain for elites, doubts about science and disgust with foreigners and poor people.
Maybe it was because Carlson’s show was the first stop in my ordeal, but I thought his hour was the most coherent — and, thus, the most corrosive.
During the course of his show, we were told that criticism of the gun-wielding protesters calling for an end to the lockdown was an affront to the First Amendment; that a study by the University of Southern California shows COVID-19 may be far more widespread, and therefore less dangerous, than previously thought; that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and others are presiding over a “police state” by encouraging people to snitch on those ignoring social-distancing rules; and that those dastardly Chinese not only let COVID-19 escape from a lab in Wuhan, but they’re selling drones to U.S. police departments that are probably spying on Americans and sending data back to Beijing.
We were even treated to a return visit by Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick, who achieved instant notoriety a few weeks ago when he said he was ready to die in order to save the economy. “The abuse you took was so disconnected from what you actually said,” Carlson told Patrick — before Patrick, you know, said it again: “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for our children and our grandchildren.”
Carlson offered up a weird and disturbing amalgam of exaggerations, unproven assertions and paranoia. There may be something to the USC study, but that’s of little comfort to the families of the more than 43,000 people who have died so far in the United States, or to the medical workers who are risking their lives every day. We do need to know more about the lab in Wuhan, as Josh Rogin wrote in The Washington Post recently. But using it to whip up hatred and xenophobia is loathsome.
I can’t even describe how Carlson closed without first assuring you that I’m not making this up. He showed a sculpture of two Greek goddesses shaking hands, and then of Dr. Anthony Fauci saying he’d just as soon see that particular custom faded into history. That was followed by a recent quote from Fauci telling a Snapchat audience that he wouldn’t condemn Tinder hookups as long as the participants understood the risks they were taking. Well, there you go. Case closed.
“They’re children playing dress-up,” Carlson said of Fauci and others in authority. “It’s scary. These are the people in charge of the country.”
At least Carlson offered a narrative thread I could more or less follow. Hannity, Fox News’ top-rated host, was strictly random-access. He began with a rapid-fire, non-linear rant about a New York Times story reporting that a Fox News fan named Joe Joyce had gone on a cruise and died of COVID-19, in part because Hannity had called concerns about the virus a “hoax.”
Trouble was (and Hannity appears to have a legitimate complaint), Hannity had made that comment only after the fan had taken his cruise. The Times then edited the story to reflect that fact without appending a correction, according to a report in Breitbart News. “This woman exploited a man’s tragic death,” Hannity said of the Times reporter, Ginia Bellafante. “She’s a hack. She works for a disgraceful organization.”
This went on interminably, with Hannity offering timelines that he did, too, take COVID-19 seriously, and so did President Trump, and Nancy Pelosi eats ice cream (I never did quite get that, but he mentioned it multiple times), and on and on and on.
Later, we were treated to some more China-bashing, repeated praise for Trump’s ban on travel from China, and an interview with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem — a Republican who, according to Hannity, has been able to contain the spread of the virus without trampling on people’s liberties. If I’m not mistaken, though, Noem was reluctant to buy into Hannity’s narrative.
“I want to see New York City open,” Hannity said.
“Well, Sean,” Noem replied cautiously, “New York City is definitely not South Dakota.”
Believe it or not, Hannity closed with that unrepentant reprobate Roger Stone, who’s heading off to prison in about a week after having been convicted of lying under oath, among other things, in connection with the Russia investigations. “What happened to you,” Hannity told Stone, “should never happen to any American.”
Carlson offered indignation, Hannity rage. Ingraham invited her viewers to relax with an hour’s worth of sneering contempt.
She derided Democrats for “taking the viral path to socialism.” She showed Trump praising the protesters as “a very orderly group of people,” a sentiment she agreed with — hailing them as salt-of-the-earth small-business owners and students who are afraid for their futures. “Of course they want to see the vulnerable and the elderly safe and secure,” she said, but added they’re upset that bike shops remain open while churches are closed. Bike shops, I tell you!
I could go on. There were the Chinese drones again, an attack on the World Health Organization, the ritual mockery of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (not her only appearance of the night, I should note), a swipe at California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s choice of Tom Steyer to co-chair his state’s economic-recovery effort (Ingraham wanted us to be sure we knew that Steyer favors slavery reparations), more reports from random doctors that COVID-19 isn’t as deadly as it’s been portrayed, and even criticism of the One World concert for inviting Michelle Obama and Laura Bush to deliver messages but not Melania Trump. One of her guests, Raymond Arroyo, went so far as to deride that decision as “partisanship,” notwithstanding Bush’s status as a member in good standing of the Republican Party.
But rather than dwell on any of that, I’ll close with something that struck me as quintessentially Ingraham — her scorn for poor and working-class people who might make a bit more money than they are accustomed to for a few months as a result of the government’s $1.1 trillion bailout.
Well, Ingraham, whose net worth has been estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars, is still steaming over the very thought of those unemployed service workers living large at taxpayers’ expense. She began by warning of “the unintended consequences” of the bailout, asking: Is there a chance that a big chunk of the workforce won’t go back to work because they’re making more by staying home?
When she took up the topic again, in the closing minutes of her show, she was joined by two guests — former restaurant-chain magnate and presidential candidate Herman Cain and a restaurateur from West Palm Beach, Florida, named Rodney Mayo. And, at least from where I was sitting, it seemed that neither of them was able to process and respond to the cruelty she was spouting.
“Provisions that Democrats forced into the legislation have made it more lucrative for people to be unemployed,” Ingraham said, adding that she’s heard from two — two! — restaurant owners that they don’t expect their employees to return to lower-paying jobs.
Cain did not respond directly, saying instead that people who are unemployed should start looking for jobs now, before the money runs out. “Those employees who you’re talking about are not thinking outside the box,” he said. Now, you might ask, “What jobs?” But at least he didn’t follow Ingraham’s lead. Mayo didn’t answer her at all, focusing instead on his own restaurant’s challenges.
To channel Bernie Sanders: The notion that we should get worked up because low-paid workers might get a few extra dollars for four months is shameful. But Ingraham is apparently beyond shame.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 65% of those polled thought President Trump was too slow to address the pandemic; 66% were more concerned that state governments would lift restrictions too quickly than too slowly; and 73% believed the worst was still to come.
This suggests that those who are devoted to fact-based messaging — governors from both political parties, the scientific establishment and the mainstream media — are being heard and believed. This wrenchingly painful lockdown, social-distancing and other measures are slowing the rate of increase. In some places, we may have even started on the downward side of the curve. Most Americans understand that’s proof these drastic steps are working, not that they were unnecessary in the first place.
Unfortunately, a significant minority believes otherwise. Fed on a media diet of Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and Fox News, many of them see these tragic developments as a conspiracy cooked up by elites who hate them. The late statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that we are all entitled to our own opinion, but not to our own facts. But that was then. This is now.
Fox promotes its own facts, scaring its viewers about things they shouldn’t be afraid of while making them complacent about things they ought to be worried about. More than anything, Fox acts as a perpetual feedback loop with Trump, giving him his talking points and then amplifying those talking points when he makes them part of his own fractured, hateful discourse.
Several years ago, the legendary television journalist Ted Koppel confronted Sean Hannity on the set of “CBS Sunday Morning,” answering “yes” when Hannity asked if Koppel thought he was “bad for America.” Koppel then said to him: “You have attracted people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts.”
That’s dangerous even in the best of times. In the midst of a crisis like the current pandemic, the propaganda offered up during prime time by Hannity and his fellow hosts is a threat to our health, our safety and our lives.
Want to fight climate change? Tell your elderly relatives to turn off Fox News.
A new survey about global warming by the Pew Research Center provides reasons for optimism. A majority of Americans favors more federal action on environmental issues, including climate change. Most respondents said we should put more emphasis on developing alternative energy sources than on expanding our use of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.
But there is one huge caveat: older, conservative respondents aren’t inclined to do much of anything — and many of them continue to believe the fiction that climate change has more to do with natural causes than with human activities.
“A strong majority of liberal Democrats (84%) say human activity contributes a great deal to climate change, with near consensus among them that human activity contributes at least some amount to climate change (96%),” according to the survey report. “In contrast, about half of conservative Republicans (53%) say human activity contributes a great deal (14%) or some (39%) to climate change. Another 45% of this group says humans play not too much or no role in climate change.”
Indifference to doing something about climate change, the survey adds, increases with age — the older the respondents, the less likely they are to want the government to take action.
Although Pew doesn’t say it, these findings coincide perfectly with the demographics of Fox News, which caters to older, conservative viewers. Cable news viewers in general are old — MSNBC, which appeals to liberals, has an even older audience than Fox. But it’s Fox, not MSNBC, that pumps out a steady stream of climate-change denialism and skepticism.
Earlier this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported on findings that showed rejection of climate science among ordinary people is uniquely American — and that Fox News was the likely reason.
Citing survey data, the author, Dana Nuccitelli, wrote that “Republicans who watch Fox News are more than twice as likely to deny human-caused climate change than Republican non-viewers, and 62 percent of Republicans watchFox News.” Nuccitelli added that the data “suggests that the presence of Fox News and other conservative media outlets may be the primary explanation for why climate denial is more prevalent in the United States than in other developed countries.”
Looking for some specifics? In just the past few months, Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity has mocked U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for linking the severity of Hurricane Dorion to climate change. Another host, Tucker Carlson, referred to the September climate strike as “adults hoping to exploit children for political purposes.” And Laura Ingraham called climate activism by Greta Thunberg and others “globalist” and “socialism in a new mask.”
It sounds ludicrous. But when your Uncle Bert and Aunt Gertrude watch hours upon hours of this stuff, the effect is to produce a combination of anger, cynicism and inertia that makes it nearly impossible to break through with serious ideas about how to save the planet. And let’s not forget that Fox functions as state television for a president who declared on Twitter in 2012 that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
Nor is there anything new about Fox News viewers believing things that just aren’t true. Last spring, a poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that solid majorities of respondents who get most of their news from Fox believed that President Trump was telling the truth about the Russia investigation. They also said they weren’t worried about future Russian interference in U.S. elections. Half of Fox News viewers believed that the Mueller report had cleared Trump of wrongdoing — even though Mueller drew a virtual road map for the House to impeach Trump on charges that he obstructed the investigation.
Then again, you could go back to the early days of the war in Iraq, when 67% of Fox News viewers believed the falsehood promoted by the Bush-Cheney administration that Saddam Hussein had worked closely with Al Qaeda.
Despite overwhelming scientific consensus that time is running out to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise. As one of the two worst polluters (China is the other), the United States has to lead if anything is going to be accomplished. Unfortunately, Trump’s response has been to pull out of the Paris climate-change accords and to torment California for taking action at the state level.
The role of Fox News in preventing serious action on climate change shouldn’t be underestimated. From propping up the Trump presidency to mocking science as a bastion of liberal elitism, Fox is hastening the day when parts of the planet will become uninhabitable.
The Pew survey shows that a majority of Americans wants to do something serious about climate change. It also shows that the same Foxified minority keeping Trump in office is blocking the wishes of the majority. It’s further proof that our media system, like our electoral system, is undermining our democracy.
Rachel Maddow was excited. The host of cable news’ top-rated show could barely contain her glee Wednesday night over the news that President Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had proven to be such a cooperative witness that special counsel Robert Mueller was recommending no jail time.
“Another few shoes are going to drop soon,” she told her viewers. She also pondered the mystery of why Trump never says anything critical about Flynn. “Not a peep about Mike Flynn since Flynn plead guilty and became a cooperator more than a year ago,” she said, adding, “There must be something else going on here. And, “The only other person he treats like this is freaking Putin!”
It was a different story on cable news’ second-highest-rated program. Sean Hannity was in full dudgeon over Mueller’s decision to go after Flynn for what Hannity called minor “process” crimes. Hannity instructed his viewers that Mueller had persecuted “a decorated military hero” for the sole purpose of building a phony case to drive Trump out of office.
“This is how desperate and how pathetic Robert Mueller is,” Hannity said, running through the reasons why Flynn might have decided to cooperate: finances ruined, his son facing possible jail time. “Is this,” Hannity asked, “what justice in America is supposed to look like to you?”
Welcome to the 2018 edition of the National Conversation. With the Mueller investigation on the verge of a possible denouement, I thought I’d spend Wednesday night watching “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Hannity.” Hyper-polarization may be tearing us apart, but at the cable news outlets, it’s good for business. According to Adweek’s TVNewser, Maddow’s program on MSNBC this past Tuesday drew nearly 3.5 million viewers, more than anyone else on cable news in prime time (8 to 11 p.m.). Hannity, on Fox News, gathered just under 2.9 million.
And surely it’s no accident that that MSNBC, which leans left, and Fox, which has embraced the hard right, are dominating prime time while CNN brings up the rear. Though CNN, like MSNBC, is harshly critical of Trump and regularly draws the White House’s ire, the network has attempted to maintain at least some of its former image as a nonpartisan purveyor of actual news. MSNBC and Fox, bound by no such scruples, are free to toss bleeding chunks of raw meat to their aging viewers.
It should be noted that all three cable outlets employ actual journalists who do good work. It’s just that they are rarely seen during prime time, especially on MSNBC and Fox. Instead, the three networks offer a full line-up of talk shows, nine hours a night. And the queen and king of those talk shows are Maddow and Hannity, whose 9 p.m. programs have become appointment viewing for political partisans of the left and right.
Lest I be accused of false equivalence, let me make it clear that Maddow, for all her opinionating and speculating, helms a show that is grounded in facts. She’s smart, and you often learn something. Over at Fox, though, the Trump presidency has pushed Hannity and other hosts into an alternative universe of dark conspiracy-mongering in which the Mueller investigation is nothing but a corrupt attempt by the “deep state” to destroy a great president because of his willingness to stand up to the establishment.
Thus did Wednesday’s edition feature a conversation between Hannity and John Solomon, an investigative columnist with The Hill, who this week reported on an “email chain”purportedly showing that former FBI director James Comey and other officials had obtained a FISA warrant under false pretenses so that they could surveil Trump associate Carter Page. Inconveniently, Solomon admitted to Hannity that he hadn’t actually seen the emails, although they have been “described” to him. All right, then.
Hannity was apoplectic, calling Solomon’s story proof of a “conscious fraud upon the court” and saying it showed that Comey was trying to tilt the election toward Hillary Clinton — never mind Comey’s late hit on Clinton, when he reopened the investigation into her emails and found nothing, a move that may well have cost her the election.
The rest of Hannity’s hour was taken up with a visit from Newt Gingrich, who called the Mueller investigation “an anti-constitutional effort by the organized left” and who congratulated Fox News for being the only media outlet willing to tell the truth; an immigration “debate” with fellow Fox host Geraldo Rivera (Hannity and Rivera both support Trump’s wall, but Rivera, unlike Hannity, would do something for the Dreamers); and, believe it or not, an update on the war on Christmas, perhaps Fox News’ most enduring creation.
Maddow’s program was considerably less toxic than Hannity’s but not necessarily any more nutritious. Other than Flynn, her main interest was the fate of Maria Butina, an accused Russian operative who, we learned, stood up at a Trump event in 2015 and apparently became the first person ever to ask the then-candidate whether he would lift sanctions against Russia. (Trump responded that he’d strongly consider it.) Butina, Maddow observed, may be the link uniting Russian money, the Trump campaign, and the National Rifle Association.
Maddow was also visited briefly by the ubiquitous Democratic congressman Adam Schiff of California, who will soon become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Alex Isenstadt of Politico, who broke the news earlier this week that a foreign government had hacked the email accounts of several top Republican campaign officials.
Significantly, neither Maddow nor Hannity spent much time on the funeral of George H.W. Bush, which has brought a sense of unity to much of the country even if praise for the one-term president has been somewhat overwrought. Maddow, at least, provided a respectful overview of the day’s events. Hannity’s main interest was to bring on New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin and former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer so they could whine that Democratic praise for the late president was just another way of trashing Trump.
Cable news has long been a wasted opportunity. So much airtime. So little news. Imagine how it might be different. How about at least one hour of prime time combining news and analysis without any partisan overlay? I’m thinking of something like Anderson Cooper’s CNN program, only with more actual journalism. Or the “PBS NewsHour” with a zippier pace and better production values.
But no. Instead we have ideological talk-show hosts exploiting the passions of their audience for ratings and profits. It’s a sorry state of affairs — but one that perfectly reflects our deep and seemingly unbridgeable divisions.
Monday was a big day for Sean Hannity, the conspiracy-minded Fox News Channel host. After all, it’s not every day that the president of the United States — even one you’re as close to as Hannity is to Donald Trump — schedules the unveiling of his choice for the Supreme Court in order to give you a ratings boost. According to Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair, some White House staff members believed Trump did exactly that. Sherman tweeted that Trump may have chosen 9 p.m. at the behest of his sleazy new communications director, Bill Shine, the former head of Fox News.
Despite this propitious opportunity, Hannity didn’t really deliver the goods, prattling on for an hour with his usual talking points and his usual guests. He didn’t quite come off as bored, but his anger and his enthusiasm seemed rote. Indeed, there was a play-acting quality to the proceedings in general. Both Republicans and Democrats know that the president’s choice, Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh, is pretty much a lock to win confirmation.
Still, three themes emerged that I suspect we will hear over and over during the next few months.
The first is that we are a “constitutional republic.” President Trump made that point in his opening remarks, and Hannity repeated it several times. That might seem like a statement of the obvious. So why keep bringing it up? I suspect it’s because we are in the midst of a prolonged period of minority rule. A number of articles have been published recently documenting growing restiveness among the powerless majority.
Consider: Trump is president because for the first time in more than a century the winning candidate captured the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by a wide margin. (Remember, the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore ended in a virtual tie.) That’s not all. By 54 percent to 42 percent, voters favored Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate in 2016. And the Republicans’ victory in House races paid off in numbers disproportionate to their razor-thin margin of 49 percent to 48 percent.
No, that’s not the way we count votes in Senate and House elections. But it does show that Democrats have been shut out of power even though voters prefer them. Mitch McConnell’s deeply corrupt refusal to allow a vote on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, only served to underscore this anti-majoritarian trend. So expect to see a lot of talk in the weeks to come from Hannity and other Trump supporters that the United States isn’t really a democracy, and why that’s a Good Thing.
The second talking point I noticed is that the right wants to cast Democrats as opponents of fair play by declaring their opposition to Kavanaugh before giving him a chance to make his case. For instance, conservatives are having some fun with a statement from the Women’s March, clearly written before the Kavanaugh announcement, saying that if “XX” is confirmed it will be “a death sentence for thousands of women.”
“They would object to anyone this president nominated,” Fox News’ Shannon Bream told Hannity. “They’re going to come after him because that’s what they do,” added Jay Sekulow, a lawyer who’s a veteran of right-wing causes as well as a member of Trump’s legal team. Hannity himself warned his viewers that “the smearing, the besmirching, the fear-mongering … this all-out effort to Bork Judge Kavanaugh” has already begun. Hannity added: “They are going to lie to you. That’s what they do. You have to rely on your heart and mind and do your own research.”
Here’s the problem with the notion that the instant opposition to Kavanaugh is somehow unfair: During the campaign, Trump put out a list of 11 judges from which he said he would choose. The list was later expanded to 25. Hannity and his guests referred to the list several times Monday night as an example of how “transparent” Trump has been. Well, you can’t have it both ways. Democrats and liberals have known for many months that Kavanaugh could be picked. It would have been a surprise if they weren’t prepared with an instant reaction to every XX on the list.
The third talking point may prove to be the most substantive, especially if there’s any chance of persuading a few Republicans opposed to runaway executive power to vote against Kavanaugh. (Ha ha! I can’t believe I just typed that.) Hannity made several uneasy references to Kavanaugh’s arguing in a 2009 law review article that a president should not be subject to criminal or civil proceedings while in office, and he noted that this was a reversal of Kavanaugh’s earlier position.
In fact, Kavanaugh did a complete flip-flop. Back when he was working on Kenneth Starr’s inquisition into the great crime of whether Bill Clinton had lied about oral sex, Kavanaugh believed that the president should not get a “break,” as he put it. Now, though, Kavanaugh thinks the president should be held harmless until after he leaves office.
“Looking back to the late 1990s, for example, the nation certainly would have been better off if President Clinton could have focused on Osama bin Laden without being distracted by the Paula Jones sexual harassment case and its criminal investigation offshoots,” Kavanaugh wrote in the Minnesota Law Review. “To be sure, one can correctly say that President Clinton brought that ordeal on himself, by his answers during his deposition in the [Paula] Jones case if nothing else.”
Now, of course, we have another president facing legal jeopardy on a variety of criminal and civil fronts, from possible collusion with the Russian government to the alleged use of his charitable foundation for personal gain. It’s not difficult to understand why Hannity and his guests on Monday stepped carefully around Kavanaugh’s change of heart, even if they are secretly delighted.
Democrats, on the other hand, wasted no time in picking up on that point. On MSNBC, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said that “Donald Trump got the trifecta” — a nominee who would likely vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, kill off the Affordable Care Act once and for all, and, if necessary, help Trump “if he gets into serious legal trouble.”
That one of Bill Clinton’s persecutors may emerge as a defender of Trump’s possible legal offenses is in some cosmic sense an apotheosis of hypocrisy, even if on a personal level Kavanaugh’s reversal was sincere. I don’t expect Hannity and his crew to defend that hypocrisy effectively. But I have no doubt that they’ll defend it loudly, repetitively, and disingenuously, which in the age of Trump is all that seems to matter.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. A little over a month ago I wrote that if we tried to expand the definition of “fake news” beyond for-profit clickfarms, then the movement to eradicate hoaxes from Facebook and other venues would quickly degenerate into ideologically motivated name-calling.
And so it came to pass. The New York Times on Monday published two stories that, for all purposes, mark the end of the nascent battle against fake news.
The first, by Jeremy Peters, details the efforts of Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, and other right-wingers to label anything they don’t like that’s reported by the mainstream media as fake news. The second, by David Streitfeld, documents how the right has unleashed its flying monkeys against Snopes.com, the venerable fact-checking site that is the gold standard for exposing online falsehoods.
One thing I could have made clearer in what has proved to be a fascinating discussion about Keith Olbermann’s political donations is that my support for the principle of journalistic independence should not be confused with support for the specific NBC News policy that tripped him up.
The policy, as reported by Politico, is absurd, as it cites the need to remain an “impartial journalist” as its justification, and states that employees may make contributions if they seek permission:
Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee.
No one would consider Olbermann to be an impartial journalist, and I can easily believe he had no idea he was violating policy when he donated to three Democratic politicians. Not to be belabor the point, but the principle that I think matters is independence, not impartiality. Check out the nine principles in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “Elements of Journalism.” You will note that two of them deal with independence, but objectivity isn’t even mentioned.
In his commentary last night, Olbermann implicitly described himself as a journalist by saying that the policy needs to be reconsidered in light of “21st-century journalism.” He is doing journalism of a sort. If you can find a meaningful difference between one of Olbermann’s “special comments” and Frank Rich’s Sunday column in the New York Times (one of my favorite reads), then you’re able to draw distinctions that elude me. And I don’t think anyone would argue that Rich isn’t a journalist.
Olbermann last night not only admitted he should have changed a “Worst Person” segment because of one of his donations, but he also quite properly pointed out the problems that would have ensued if he had contributed to Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva before having him on the show rather than after. That strikes me as a pretty good summation of why even opinionated hosts shouldn’t write checks to politicians.
A final observation: A number of people have criticized me and others for obsessing over Olbermann’s small contributions when Fox News hosts such as Sean Hannity routinely donate to politicians, and when Fox News major domo Rupert Murdoch has no scruples about giving $1 million to the Republican Governors Association.
They’re right, of course. Fox News is strictly a talk-show operation — the video equivalent of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. MSNBC aspires to something higher than that. To say that MSNBC is a mirror image of Fox News is akin to arguing that the Nation is just like the Drudge Report. Rachel Maddow explained the difference quite well on Friday. But I don’t think it’s necessary to say “of course, Fox is worse” every time I write about MSNBC.
NBC handled the Olbermann matter badly right from the start, though the final result — a two-day suspension — strikes me as fitting the offense rather well. I’m glad Olbermann is back. And I agree with him that NBC ought to take another look at its policy. I’d make it tougher and clearer.